x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Even as Lebanon fractures, very little can or will be done

It is misguided to praise Lebanese resilience and find comfort in the assessment that full-blown war remains unlikely.

Three massive bombings just over a week apart - the deadliest since the end of the civil war in 1990 - have rattled Lebanon and revived talk of impending civil strife. The first one killed 27 people 10 days ago in a Shia majority suburb of Beirut where Hizbollah is dominant. The other two, on Friday, hit two Sunni mosques in the northern city of Tripoli, killing more than 45 people.

The spillover from Syria's intensifying civil war has undoubtedly exacerbated Lebanon's own fault lines. Until recently, however, several factors helped Lebanon avoid the worst. The main local actors realised that the outcome of the Syrian civil war will matter more to the country's fate than their own competition. They also understood that any military victory will hardly translate into tangible political gains. An unspoken understanding among key regional powers not to use Lebanon as a battlefield, but rather as a gateway to Syria, bolstered these calculations.

The Lebanese president Michel Sleiman and his prime minister Najib Mikati, two weak centrist politicians, have tried to formalise these postures into a policy of dissociation, calling on every Lebanese actor to refrain from intervening in Syria or escalating at home. To contain recurrent outbreaks of violence, they relied on the military. Sadly, it was only a matter of time before such understandings unravelled. The viciousness of the Syrian war mobilised Sunnis and Shias across the region. Flags supporting the Syrian revolution fly alongside black Al Qaeda banners in Tripoli and Majd El Anjar, while banners vowing to defend the holy Shia site of Sayeda Zainab in Damascus hang on the streets of Dahiyeh and Baalbeck.

As a result, much of Lebanon has been pulled into the military and political geography of the Syrian crisis. The journalist Jihad Al Zein describes the state as shrinking into the Mutasarrifiyya, the tiny historic entity of Mount Lebanon and its coast. The always peripheral Bekaa Valley and North Lebanon, now overwhelmed with Syrian refugees and host to Sunni and Shia armed factions, tribes, smugglers and criminal gangs, have become de facto extensions of Syria. In particular, Hizbollah no longer hides its involvement with the brutal Assad regime.

So with sectarian passions peaking at home and in nearby Syria, and Lebanese leaders throwing accusations at each other, it is difficult not to see a vicious tit-for-tat at play. Hizbollah and its media have accused their anti-Assad rivals and their foreign intelligence allies over the first blast. Salafi sheikhs, some of whom were targeted in Friday's explosions, have lashed out at Mr Al Assad, Iran and the Shia guerrilla movement. Al Qaeda too blamed Hizbollah. Not to be outdone, political and clerical authorities have pointed to Israel, the convenient villain every time a horrible truth needs to be hidden.

Lebanon being Lebanon, however, murky intelligence and political games are not to be discounted. Many small actors, not always ideologically motivated, are now springing up across the country with access to explosives and muscle. The Salafi orbit is far from being united: several clerics prefer to keep fighting next door in Syria than at home but radical factions are proliferating. Some are eager to hit Hizbollah on its own territory and make the Shia community pay for its support of its Syrian adventure.

Because of this, many suspect Hizbollah's hand behind the Tripoli bombings. However, Hizbollah has no interest in a sectarian escalation at present - its use of political violence at home, however nasty and condemnable, is more targeted and subtle. Just a year ago, an Assad confidante was arrested for planning a series of bombings aimed at inciting sectarian violence. The fact that the Syrian regime relied on this man rather than its top Lebanese ally, Hizbollah, hints at the possibility of operational divergence between the two. After all, in the previous decade Syria sent Sunni jihadi fighters to Iraq to combat Shia militias supported by Hizbollah; the alliance still held because their disagreements were managed and localised.

Where does that leave Lebanon? In a pitiful shape. With an ailing economy and political paralysis, the state no longer has the instruments, let alone the political will, to contain these pressures.

The military, which reflects rather than transcends the country's woes, is overstretched and exhausted. It cannot translate its military successes into permanent stability because many perceived it as too close to Hizbollah and because other government agencies don't contribute economic and social strategies. In the name of avoiding more instability, elections have been postponed until next year; parliament extended its own mandate, undermining democracy and the legitimacy of institutions; the country has been waiting for a new government since April; corruption and government underperformance are at an all time-high.

A final word: there is a tendency to praise Lebanese resilience and find comfort in the assessment that full-blown war remains unlikely. This is misguided: that attitude, arguably essential to deal with pervasive uncertainty and overcome constant grief, has perversely nurtured complacency and fatalism. The Lebanese know their country and state are fracturing - yet they are hardly doing anything about it.


Emile Hokayem is a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the author of Syria's Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant

On Twitter @emile_hokayem